Friday, January 19, 2018

Shepard for the Day.12

continuing: child's life in primordial hunter-gatherer times, when we became human...

Vigilant Owl by Kenojuak Ashevak  Cape
"There is a constancy of people, yet it is a world bathed in nonhuman forms, a myriad of figures, evoking an intense sense of their differences and similarities, the beckoning challenge of a lifetime.  Speech is about that likeness and unlikeness, the coin of thought.

It is a world of travel and stop.  At first the child fears being let and is bound by fear to the proximity of his mother and others.  This interrupted movement sets the pace of his life, telling him gently that he is a traveler or visitor in the world.

Its motion is like his own growth: as he gets older and as the cycle of group migrations is repeated, he sees places he has seen before, and those places seem less big and strange.  The life of movement and rest is one of returning, and the places are the same and yet always more."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Shepard for the Day.11

More detail about growing up in a primordial hunter-gatherer culture...

"For the infant there is a joyful comfort in being handled and fondled often, fed and cleaned as the body demands.  From the start it is a world of variation on rhythms, the refreshment of hot and cold, wind like a breath in the face, the smell and feel of rain and snow, earth in hand and underfoot.

The world is a soft sound-surround of gentle voices, human, cricket, and bird music. It is a pungent and inviting place with just enough bite that it says, 'Come out, wake up, look, taste, and smell; now cuddle and sleep'!"

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness

Is "Health Insurance Fraud" an Oxymoron?

‘As the US demonstrates, when the profit motive is introduced into a health delivery system, ways of gaming the system and outright fraud schemes are easier to devise, and they are a far more profitable business to engage in than treating patients.’
David Lindorff

This article in the London Review of Books details conventional fraud, but the fraud behind the system is the system itself: healthcare for profit.

Obamacare was a necessary set of innovations to protect more Americans, and its reliance on private insurance was politically inevitable.  But the system is still a massive fraud.

Or maybe I'm just a little ticked as I survey my past year's expenses and look forward to the next.

For example, for 2018 Social Security granted a 2% cost of living adjustment, after several years of pretending that the real cost of actually living as a senior hadn't gone up at all, gosh, weren't we lucky.  All the price rises on food, clothing etc. must have been senior moment delusions.

Unfortunately also for 2018 Medicare Part B increased its rates to those same seniors (including me), cutting the adjustment roughly in half.  It's a common assumption that Medicare is free.  Well, it ain't.

Only Medicare Part A, which covers hospital costs (though of course not all of them) doesn't charge a monthly premium.  Medicare B (doctors costs, but not all of them, oh no) is deducted from the Social Security check.  Not to mention Medicare C and D plans (if you can afford them) which cover other stuff, and are run by private insurance companies.

Then there are the so-called Medigap private insurance plans that cover what Medicare A and B don't cover.  Though still not all, oh no.  My AARP plan told me my premium for them is also going up in 2018, so forget the cost of living increase.  The cost of living increased beyond it, before I got out of the insurance category.

(AARP also told me that the monthly premium I'm paying is not the actual monthly premium, oh no, it includes a discount.  "Discount" is not a word I've heard from them before.  But apparently this is going to keep going up every year.)

In the past year, the AARP plan paid for--what a surprise--virtually nothing.  It just paid their executives, lobbyists and their fraud insurance.  So here's my 2017: practically all medical goods (prescriptions) and services (including dentist and eye doctor) I paid for entirely out of pocket, plus some doctor bills Medicare and AARP wouldn't pay for, plus copays.

 Meanwhile I paid thousands of dollars in the semi-private Medicare Part B insurance and the private Medigap insurance, for which I got pretty much nothing but pieces of paper telling me why I was getting nothing.

Fraud may be more profitable than treating patients.  But insurance must certainly be.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Shepard for the Day.10

"The quests and tests that mark his passage in adolescent initiation are not intended to reveal to him that his love of the natural world was an illusion or that, having seemed only what it was, it in some ways failed him.  He will not graduate from that world but into its significance.

So, with the end of childhood, he begins a lifelong study, a reciprocity with the natural world in which its depths are as endless as his own creative thought.

He will not study it in order to transform its liveliness into mere objects that represent his ego, but as a poem, numinous and analogical, of human society."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Shepard for the Day.9

"Grandfather Storyteller" by Helen Cordero
(Cochiti Pueblo)
[continuing his description of childhood and relationship to nature in ancestral hunter-gatherer cultures of humanity's first thousands of years...]

"But the child does not yet philosophize on this; for him the world is simply what it seems; he is shielded from speculation and abstraction by his own psyche.

He is not given the worst of the menial tasks.  He is free, much as the creatures around him--that is, delicately watchful, not only of animals but of people, among whom life is not ranked subordination to authority.  Conformity for him will be to social pressure and custom, not to force.

All this is augured in the nonhuman world, not because he never see dominant and subordinate animals, creatures killing others, or trees whose shade suppresses the growth of other plants, but because, reaching puberty, he is on the brink of a miracle of interpretation that will transform those things.

He will learn that his childhood experiences, though a comfort and a joy, were a special language.  Through myth and its ritual enactments, he is once again presented with that which he expects.

Thenceforth natural things are not only themselves but a speaking.  He will not put his delight in the sky and the earth behind him as a childish and irrelevant thing."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness

Please Kill This Fad Before It Catches On

I've seen this suggestion before, but not at the length of this long article in the New York Times online: suggesting the year of 1968 and this year of 2018 are similar.

I recognize the temptation.  It's a nice even, symmetrical 50 years.  It's a provocative premise.  It's a nice article assignment.  It's clickbait.

And it's bullshit.  Please resist the temptation.  Though this particular article has its merits, its premise is fundamentally unsound.

There is no useful comparison between 1968 and 2018.  They are different in all but the most superficial ways.  The "division" in this country is almost completely different.  If you stick to what the two years have in common, you lose what was most important in each year, especially 1968.

I don't suppose we can avoid a flood of 1968 stories, at least for a month or so.  But let's honor the integrity of that year and extract its true significance rather than trivialize both this year and that year with invidious comparisons.

Or not.  It won't last long anyway.

Monday, January 15, 2018

That Other Shithole Country

Almost as disheartening as the anti-president himself is his success in corrupting the Republicans in Washington.  It has suddenly struck two of them that he didn't say "shithole countries" at all (describing the homelands of Haitian and African immigrants) and it was a horrible distortion for anyone to say so.  For according to the conservative National Review, he might actually have said "shithouse."

No, you can't make this shit up.  Andy Borowitz, get your shit together.

But as Martin Luther King Day passes, we can at least try to see as clearly as he did.  In this time it is that a lot of Republicans, particularly the antipresident's "base", thoroughly agree with the antipresident's characterization.  Moreover, they are most upset about another shithouse (or shithole) country he didn't name.

That country is the United States of America.  They cannot face that it is rapidly becoming multiracial and more equal.  They would rather side with the avaricious rich out to loot the country including them, as long as they feed their fears of this country.  They have lost more jobs to foreigners who stay in their own countries than they ever will to immigrants, but they don't see them.  

Nothing else matters but that it's not their America anymore.  I imagine some of them are saying this out loud, and many others would agree: This is what happens when you let people from shithole countries in, even if a bunch of them are descendants of unwilling immigrants dragged over as slaves.  Give them equality and what do you get?  A shithole country of your own.

Perhaps President Obama is correct and Fox News covers a different planet, but certainly it covers a different country.  All actual news about the United States as well as the world is fake news because it's not about the country that does not exist that they want to believe they live in.  When you live in a fake country, news about the real country is always fake.

Nobody likes to feel invaded, or powerless, or a victim of injustice.  But beyond empathy, we're looking at a segment of the electorate that hates their own country. Together with those who made deluded or just plain stupid decisions, they voted for the antipresident, and they're more than fine with his reflexive racism and racist vulgarity.

So this is what Republicans are counting on, as they ever more corruptly cozy up to the antipresident, and incidentally, make a dismal authoritarianism more likely: the support of voters who like those in power in the federal government, but hate the shithole country that government is supposed to govern.

Shepard for the Day.8

Cahuilla basket bowl, south central California
"In such a world there is no wildness, as there is no tameness.  Human power over nature is largely the exercise of handcraft.  Insofar as the natural world poetically signifies human society, it signals that there is no great power over other men except as the skills of leadership are hewn by example and persuasion.

The otherness of nature takes fabulous forms of incorporation, influence, conciliation, and compromise. When the juvenile goes out with adults to seek a hidden root or to stalk an antelope he sees the unlimited possibilities of affiliation, for success is understood to depend on the readiness of the prey or tuber as much as the skill of the forager."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Shepard for the Day.7

"The play space--trees, shrubs, paths, hidings, climbings--is a visible, structured entity, another prototype of relationships that hold.  It is the primordial terrain in which games of imitating adults lay another groundwork for a dependable world. 

 They prefigure a household, so that, for these children of mobile hunter-gatherers, no house is necessary to structure and symbolize social status.  Individual trees and rocks that were also known to parents and grandparents are enduring counterplayers having transcendent meaning later in life."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness
p. 8

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Shepard for the Day.6

"The child begins to babble and then to speak according to his own timing, with the cooperation of adults who are themselves acting upon the deep wisdom of a stage of life.  At first it is a matter of rote and imitation, a naming of things whose distinctive differences are unambiguous.  Nature is a lexicon where, at first, words have the solid reality of things.

In this bright new world there are as yet few mythical beasts, but real creatures to watch and to mimic in play.  Animals have a magnetic affinity for the child, for each in its way seems to embody some impulse, reaction, or movement that is "like me."

In the playful, controlled enactment of them comes a gradual mastery of the personal inner zoology of fears, joys, and relationships.  In stories told, their forms spring to life in the mind, re-presented in consciousness, training the capacity to imagine."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness

Friday, January 12, 2018

Shepard for the Day.5

Note: ontogeny is "the whole of growth through the first twenty years (including physical growth.")

from Mendota Dakota Community
"The seed of normal ontogeny is present in all of us.  It triggers vague expectations that parents and society will respond to our hunger.  The newborn infant, for example, needs almost continuous association with one particular mother who sings and talks to it, breast-feeds it, holds and massages it, wants and enjoys it.  For the infant as person-to-be, the shape of all otherness grows out of that maternal relationship.

Yet, the setting of that relationship was, in the evolution of humankind, a surround of living plants, rich in texture, smell and motion.  The unfiltered, unpolluted air, the flicker of wild birds, real sunshine and rain, mud to be tasted and tree bark to grasp, the sounds of wind and water, the calls of animals and insects as well as human voices--all these are not vague and pleasant amenities for the infant, but the stuff out of which  its second grounding, even while in its mother's arms, has begun.

The outdoors is also in some sense another inside, a kind of enlivenment of that fetal landscape which is not so constant as once supposed.  The surroundings are also that-which-will-be-swallowed, internalized, incorporated as the self."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness
pp. 6-7

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Start in the Right Direction to Address the Climate Crisis

How can we address the causes of the climate crisis?  Which basically means, how do we reduce greenhouse gases?  The conversation about this tends to be abstract, political (a carbon tax etc.) or piecemeal, often pitting one method against another.

But a small group in Sausalito organizing mostly young researchers from 22 countries has made what seems like the first systematic effort to figure out what really can draw down CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the next 30 years.  This has resulted in a book (Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by the project's founder, environmental entrepreneur Paul Hawken),  a website and an ongoing project that seeks partners and participation.

So far Project Drawdown has identified and ranked 100 ways.  But it's more than a wish list by folks brainstorming in an editorial meeting.  They've tested existing methods against cost and potential benefit in greenhouse gases reduction and in monetary saving.  They carefully vetted both data and conclusions with an array of experts.

Also notable is their global reach, including solutions for third world countries, and looking to indigenous peoples as land managers to be part of the solution.

Some of the ways to best address greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are not surprising (wind power, various forms and applications of solar, more forest) while others perhaps are (refrigeration techniques, food waste, educating girls.) There are some fascinating cutting edge combinations of nature and relatively low tech or no-tech, like Silvopasture and other methods of reducing the unnaturally large carbon footprints of cattle.

There are a number of videos on YouTube about the Project.  A nice 11 minute one is here,  and there's a longer presentation with visuals by Katharine Wilkinson of Project Drawdown to Google. (Note: viewers over 50 may find the parade of cliches grating but they do seem effective shorthand and images for her audience.)

The findings so far are billed as "the most comprehensive plan" so far, and the word "comprehensive" is very important, especially in setting priorities.  In terms of addressing the problem, there's been a lot of hot air about how changes in the obvious sectors (energy, transportation) can or can't be adequate to slow emissions enough, and especially if there's even the will to try.

But that debate lacks the information on how much other solutions can contribute to the necessary drawdown, so those other solutions are usually just ignored.  This project attempts to not only bring them into the conversation, but to assess their possible contribution with numbers.

The idea of planning for the future by developing comprehensive pictures of problems and solutions has been a dream since H.G. Wells and Buckminster Fuller.  When the idea caught fire in the 1970s that computers could help examine the world as a system, with all the factors and interactions and feedbacks, there was a huge boom in Future Studies, futuristics etc.  By 1980 it had died out, partly I assume because computers in those days, let alone people, weren't quite up to the task.

With a single goal of drawing down greenhouse gases, Project Drawdown has a chance, but as it has already learned, there are all kinds of other effects, interactions, synergies and feedbacks involved in the changes they suggest.  Most are positive however, which reminds me of this cartoon:

Yet Project Drawdown is just a start in the comprehensivity game, as suggested in an interview Paul Hawken did with the editor of Green America.  Hawken calls nuclear energy a "regret solution" because he doesn't support it, but the numbers say it will help, so it is included in the list.  In an editorial note, Green America maintains that once the energy used in mining and enriching uranium plus plant construction etc. is all figured in, more greenhouse gas pollution is created and needs to be part of the assessment.  So maybe this needs to be more comprehensive.  The Project should continue refining its data and conclusions.

But a huge advantage of the project's list is that progress can be made in adopting these changes by business sectors, businesses, state and local governments, communities (all perhaps in partnership with universities), and by families and individuals.  (And because it's global, by the governments of other countries where the problem is a given.)

In particular, as Wilkinson and others point out, there is such variety in effective methods that one or another is bound to appeal strongly to many individuals. These are projects for young people to get excited about, and to act on--perhaps as career paths.  Though priorities are evident in the ranking, all of the solutions contribute, so selecting any one of them is a positive.

In publicizing Project Drawdown, Hawken and others feel it necessary to denigrate the "doom and gloom" surrounding the subject of the climate crisis.  Maybe an attitude adjustment is needed, but I think they have a simpler solution: just refer to the science on the effects of the climate crisis as "the problem statement," (which they do) and go right into the solutions.  That's their important contribution, and what is likely to get people excited, especially young people.

And it really is unnecessary for Hawken to make his case for paying attention to the project by going off into dubious areas.  For instance (in his Green America interview), he asserts that "The human brain isn't wired to respond to future-existential threats.  The people who did that are not in the gene pool."

He may have some half-assed neuroscience to back him up, but what he says is patent nonsense.  Humans are all about imagining and assessing future dangers and opportunities (though denial often gets in the way), and the relationship of evolution to the brain is a very tricky area.  Especially since individual human brains "evolve" in meaningful ways over a lifetime.  People do come together because they care about the future, especially when they find something they can do well that can contribute to a better future.

 People who think about the future are pretty obviously in the gene pool.  They'd better be.

Shepard for the Day.4

"The passage of human development is surprisingly long and complicated.  The whole of growth through the first twenty years (including physical growth) is our ontogenesis, our 'coming into being,' or ontogeny...

Among those relict tribal peoples who seem to live at peace with their world, who feel themselves to be guests rather than masters, the ontogeny of the individual has some characteristic features.  
Gene Thomas (Onandoga)
"Eagle and Dreamer"

I conjecture that their ontogeny is more normal than ours (for which I will be seen as sentimental and romantic) and that it may be considered to be a standard from which we have deviated.

Theirs is the way of life to which our ontogeny was fitted by natural selection, fostering a calendar of mental growth, cooperation, leadership, and the study of a mysterious and beautiful world where the clues to the meaning of life were embodied in natural things, where everyday life was inextricable from spiritual significance and encounter, and where the members of the group celebrated individual stages and passages as ritual participation in the first creation."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Shepard for the Day.3

From the classic 1956 movie Forbidden Planet:
the "monster from the id" reimagined.
"To invoke psychopathology is to address infancy, as most mental problems have their roots in our first years of life and their symptoms are defined in terms of immaturity. 

 The mentally ill typically have infantile motives and act on perceptions and states of mind that caricature those of early life.  Among their symptoms are destructive behaviors that are the means by which the individual comes to terms with private demons that would otherwise overwhelm him.  To argue with the logic with which he defends his behavior is to threaten those very acts of defense that stand between him and a frightful chasm.

Most of us fail to become as mature as we might.  In that respect there is a continuum from simple deprivations to traumatic shocks, many of which are fears and fantasies of a kind that normally haunt anxious infants and then diminish.

Such primary fantasies and impulses are the stuff of the unconscious of us all.  They typically remain submerged or their energy is transmuted, checked, sublimated, or subordinated to reality.

Not all are terrifying: there are chimeras of power and unity and erotic satisfaction as well as shadows that plague us at abyssal levels with disorder and fear, all sending their images and symbols into dreams and, in the troubled soul, into consciousness. 

 It is not clear whether they all play some constructive part in the long trail toward sane maturity or whether they are just flickering specters lurking beside the path, waiting for our wits to stumble.  Either way, the correlation between mental unhealth and regression to particular stages of early mental life has been confirmed thousands of times over."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Shepard for the Day.2

Wi'id Mask by contemporary Haida artist
Robert Davidson
"Our species once did (and in some small groups still does) live in stable harmony with the natural environment.  That was not because men were incapable of changing their environment or lacked acumen; it was not simply on account of a holistic or reverent attitude, but for some more enveloping and deeper reason still.

The change began between five and ten thousand years ago and became more destructive and less accountable with the progress of civilization.  The economic and material demand of growing villages and towns are, I believe, not causes but results of this change.

In concert with advancing knowledge and human organization it wrenched the ancient social machinery that had limited human births.  It fostered a new sense of human mastery and the extirpation of nonhuman life.  

In hindsight this change has been explained in terms of necessity or as the decline of ancient gods.  But more likely it was irrational (though not unlogical) and unconscious, a kind of failure in some fundamental dimension of human existence, an irrationality beyond mistakenness, a kind of madness."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness
pp. 3-4

Below the Buzz, Real Threats Continue Uncomprehended

While the mainstage drama plays out of who's up and who's down, riveting all attention, fundamental challenges to the country and to civilization continue inexorably, under the social media radar.

The newly aggressive attack on humanity's sustaining environment, let alone the neglect of ongoing destruction, continues at a startling pace.  All appearances suggest that the servants (and often former company execs) of fossil fuel corporations now in power in this administration are taking full advantage of the anti-president's total vengeance on the previous President.

It's not clear if opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other areas of the Arctic as well as both coasts of the United States to new oil drilling will actually result in more drilling.  It depends on the economics and the adherence to market forces by these companies, but we may have passed--or nearly passed--the point at which alternative energy is cheap enough to speak for itself.  That's probably what's behind Monday's conspicuous failure of the administration to privilege fossil fuels.

Still, as the effects of global heating continue to show up in extreme weather around the world, the health of the oceans is a deep concern.  The extreme depletion of oxygen alone threatens marine life, which in turn threatens human existence. But that's not all--half the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean.  Spaceship Earth may be running out of air.  (Here's the latest report, and a summary.)

Meanwhile our society is threatened by another continuing phenomenon that is equally invisible, even though (like "climate change") it's well known as a buzzy combination of words: "income inequality."

What that really means is that the proportion of people able to make a living gets smaller continuously.  For millions of people it is a daily crisis, and for millions of others, it's coming.  The replacement of full time work in one category after another is one conspicuous reason, as described in this dramatic Politico report, "The Real Future of Work."

Medical transcriptionists in Pittsburgh learn they've been
outsourced--the incident that begins the Politico report on
threatening trends in the jobs future--and present.
Despite glowing unemployment numbers, the crisis is expressed in other numbers, such as: "The percentage of families with more debt than savings is higher now than at any point since 1962, while the median American family’s net worth is lower than it’s been in nearly a quarter-century."

But statistics aren't really necessary.  Anyone who did any socializing over the holidays is likely to have heard stories and looked into the faces the stories are about: entire professions and job categories are dying as full time, well-paid occupations (thanks in part to the Internet and failure to respond to this growing crisis) while those whose jobs have not yet been made obsolete are working harder, for longer hours and less pay.

Here's where the anger should be (one place anyway), and it probably is, however diverted and distracted.  It's certainly one place the fear is.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Shepard for the Day.1

"My question is: why do men persist in destroying their habitat?  

I have, at different times, believed the answer was a lack of information, faulty technique, or insensibility.  Certainly intuitions of the interdependence of all life are an ancient wisdom, perhaps as old as thought itself, occasionally rediscovered, as it has been by the science of ecology in our own society...

In time, even with the attention of the media and a windfall of synthesizers, popularizers, gurus of ecophilosophy, and other champions of ecology, in spite of some new laws and indications that environmentalism is taking its place as a new turtle on the political log, nothing much has changed.

Either I and other "pessimists" and "doomsayers" wer wrong about the human need for other species, and the decline of the planet as a life-support system, or our species is intent on suicide--or there is something we overlooked.

Such a something could be simply greed...But it is hard to be content with the theory that people are bad and will always do the worst."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness (1982) pp. 1-2

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Shepard for the Day, An Introduction

Debased versions of Paul Shepard's ideas are everywhere. There were online and magazine articles in late 2017 about a new book that dared to suggest that the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture in human history might not have been the unalloyed triumph it is assumed to have been--that for example, hunter-gatherers were healthier. Shepard wrote this, and made a sophisticated case for it, at least 30 years before.

Similarly, several books in the past decade or so have asserted the crucial role of nature in child development. Shepard showed how profoundly true this is, also more than 30 years ago.  Even the Paleo Diet is distantly derived from the case he made for today's humans being physically just the same as we were in the paleolithic, but we don't eat (or do anything) that way anymore, with unhealthy results.  Shepard had much more profound insights in that direction in the 1970s, including a much longer list of consequences.

Even President Obama quoted the title of one of his books, probably without realizing it, when he referred to this as "the only world we've got."

Yet Shepard is seldom credited.  Even his role as a pioneer of ecology is largely forgotten, at least by the mainstream.  Better known names often know his work and speak very highly of it, but they remain the better known names.

In his many books, Paul Shepard (1925-1996) combined a breathtaking synthesis backing strong and profound analysis. He essentially created the field of human ecology, and his work defines it. Apparently few have been able to match both his breadth and depth, so he remains unique.

There is biographical and other information at the Paul Shepard wordpress site.  This is a condensed version of an earlier site I created in tandem with his widow Florence Rose Krall Shepard, herself an author (of Ecotone and the more recent Sometimes Creek: A Wyoming Memoir.)  I might do another site sometimes soon.

But for the moment  I've just posted my 1997 essay on Shepard, "The Ecology of Maturity" at my companion blog Kowincidence.  And on this blog I'm beginning a series of quotes: Shepard for the Day (modeled of course after the "Emerson for the Day" site that Kim Stanley Robinson invented for his Science in the Capitol climate crisis trilogy, now edited and combined in a single volume, Green Earth. Then somebody actually started such a site.)

I've quoted Shepard here before, going back more than a decade (the paul shepard label will take you to those) but this time I'm trying something a bit different.

I'm starting Shepard for the Day with sequential quotes from his book Nature and Madness.  Originally published in 1982, it became part of the series of new Shepard editions by University of Georgia Press, with 1998 forewords.  In the foreword to this book C.L. Rawlins writes:

"Of his many distinguished books, Shepard believed Nature and Madness to be the most important, for its presentation of what amounts to a unified field theory of the human condition.

To support this, he draws from a stunning array of disciplines.  His research in the fields of biology, genetics, zoology, anthropology, psychology, ethology, history, theology, poetics and myth is deployed not to demonstrate his intellectual powers, grand as they are, but because all these are necessary components of human ecology, a field of study that he practically founded."  

Shepard's prose is dense in meaning but I read it as quite eloquent and accessible. Perhaps both his meaning--so different from mainstream thought-- as well as the virtues of his writing can be experienced more clearly and profoundly in shorter bits, such as a paragraph or two.  Anyway, that's the experiment I'm beginning.

Because it's really, really important.  Shepard may not be well known generally, but he has made deep and lasting impressions to that effect on individuals.  That's fitting in a way, because although this book presents a societal indictment, it ultimately is about effects on individuals.

  Rawlins' foreword details Shepard's influence on him (also my approach in my 1997 essay, a version of which was published in the Shepard tribute issue of Wild Duck Review.)   And like Rawlins, I found my first copy of Nature and Madness on a bookstore sale table (he in Moab, Utah in 1993, me in Seattle in 1988 or so), though I had been familiar with some of Shepard's early work in the 1970s.

Nature and Madness speaks for itself, but its major premise is that western civilization has been crazy from the start, due primarily to the broken relationship with nature that humanity had for most of its existence.  And because of this, society and individuals within it have not developed to a true maturity. Rawlins:

"And so it is, Shepard writes, with the stalled development that accompanies modern culture--we feel a bone deep fury, one we discharge through fanatical belief, unending war, and the accelerating destruction of our world."

Rawlins interprets Shepard as saying "that mass culture draws collective power from blocking individual development."  That's a profound thought to be thinking right now.  Expect more.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Fast and Furious

The furor over the forthcoming--and later today, officially published book--Fire and Fury is still raging, so it's fruitless to even summarize what's happened so far. Republicans are roiling, not only from the open war declared by the anti-president and his enablers on Bannon, the revelations on Russia, White House dysfunction and the anti-president's incompetence, but what this book adds to the ongoing concerns on his peculiar mental state, and of course what this all means politically.

But for the rest of the country and the world it is the increasing worry over his grasp of reality, and impulse control.  His tweet on his bigger nuclear button is part of this context.  In this regard, Eric Levitz writes that the signs are there for everyone to see.  He disputes the idea that the anti-president has to be examined by a psychologist or whatever before a diagnosis is made:

"That argument has always struck me as nuts.There is no diagnostic blood test or brain scan for narcissistic personality disorder; there’s just a list of observable traits. A mental-health professional simply studies a patient’s modes of reasoning and patterns of behavior, and assesses whether they fit the checklist of symptoms for NPD. It’s absurd to believe that a psychiatrist who has spent a couple of hours talking to a patient in an office is qualified to make this diagnosis — but one with access to hundreds of hours of a patient’s interviews and improvisatory remarks, along with a small library’s worth of biographical information and testimonials from his closest confidants — is not. To insist otherwise is to mystify psychiatric practice; it’s to pretend that there is some shamanistic knowledge that mental-health professionals can only access once you provide them with a co-pay."

At least some psychologists who have studied the public record are deeply concerned, and as Levitz reports, one of them has briefed members of Congress.  That's enough to be convincing, but whether it's enough to pass a legal or constitutional test is another question.  It would seem that an actual examination is the minimum for that.

Yet The Fire and Fury excerpts widely published by Thursday only add to the evidence of mental instability or worse.  It's not just the individual statements and incidents, it's the weight of them.  One of the most troubling is this:

"At Mar-a-Lago, just before the new year, a heavily made-up Trump failed to recognize a succession of old friends."

To the usual personality disorders suggested, Levitz adds the possibility of dementia (or senility.)  At least some of this may be actual brain damage or dysfunction.  I was surprised when he slurred his words and had to use two hands to grip a glass that no one in the media I saw mentioned the possibility of a mini-stroke, which is the first thing I thought of.  It's transitory but it can be damaging.

If something like that has happened and it shows up in a real physical (as has been promised for this month), then invoking the 25th amendment becomes easier.

 Republicans invoking it is also made easier because the sacred tax cut is law, and that's likely to be all the Rs will get out of this Congress.  They keep circling the wagons until they don't.  They need to be convinced this guy has no future, and with him neither do they.  Or sufficiently scared out of their own minds by that finger on the nuclear button.

The other red flag in this regard reported in this book is that the anti-president made the decision to fire Comey alone.  Although aides had weighed in on the pros and cons, he made and announced the decision without telling anyone first.  That does not bode well when it's also being reported that he's becoming obsessed with North Korea and war.

In any case I forewarned a fateful year, and it's off to a fast and furious start.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Quote of the Year

"The invisible hand never picks up the check."
Kim Stanley Robinson

Inside Out

Tom Petty was the third member of the Traveling Wilburys to leave the scene, after Roy Orbison (who was gone by the time this video was made) and George Harrison.  He's in this video, which is also notable for Bob Dylan's performance.  I've seen lots of Dylan videos but the only ones I've noticed that he looks like he's having a good time (at least occasionally) are with the Traveling Wilburys.  Happy New Years Eve.

R.I.P. 2017: Legacy and Endurance

We can match memories to many names of the music makers who died in 2017, like Della Reese and Keely Smith, Tom Petty and Walter Becker, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, Greg Allman and Glen Campbell, Rosalie Sorrels, Al Jarreau, J. Geils...

We can match memories to faces even if we don't always recall the names: Harry Dean Stanton, Martin Landau, John Hurt, Glenne Headley, Bill Dana, John Heard, Dina Merrill, Barbara Hale, Powers Booth, Robert Hardy, Richard Hatch, Bill Paxton, Robert Guillaume and many more, as well as iconic names and faces: Jerry Lewis, Mary Tyler Moore, Jeanne Moreau.

I'll remember Adam West as Batman, and also as the genial guy with great stories who stopped by my office in Pittsburgh, because the wife of the promoter who brought him to a convention in the city worked there.

Jeanne Moreau was the queen of the New Wave and French films generally in the 1960s and 70s, which is when I was avidly watching them.  She is best remembered for the film I remember her best: Jules and Jim.  Her magic on film is mysterious.

Director Jonathan Demme was most famous for Silence of the Lambs but I remember him for Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads movie, after which he made a Bruce Springsteen film and at least three with Neil Young, as well as Melvin and Howard (one of Jason Robards' last great films) and Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia.  A director with range, documentaries, live action (concerts) as well as features, like Michael Apted or Martin Scorcese.

Though George Romero was a Pittsburgh director, I first saw Night of the Living Dead in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a highly educated and film savvy audience.  It was the first time I'd been in an audience of adults and heard screaming.  The Pittsburgh locations, accents and characters (come one, Chilly Billy as a newscaster?) took me out of the story from time to time but mostly I was gripped like everybody else.

Later when I was back in Pittsburgh the alternative newspaper I wrote for had second floor offices in a relatively isolated building on the South Side.  There were film editing suites on the third floor.  Friends working late in the newspaper office reported hearing chilling screams coming from the third floor, but soon learned this meant that the Romero editors were working up there.

Though these are famous people, people who worked in mass media, whose work reached millions over many years, in the end their legacy is personal, and different for each person they touched.

2017 saw the death of several iconic figures of the Civil Rights movement: organizers Roger Wilkins and Roy Innis, and "comedian"/conscience of the movement Dick Gregory, as well as American Indian activist Dennis Banks.  They fought for dignity, opportunity and equality, and their influence is reflected in individual lives--in kids who went to college who otherwise probably would not have had that ambition or opportunity, and so on.  Legacy in a lot of individual stories.

And so it is for the rest of us.  Legacy for ordinary people or less well known and less widely influential people resides most directly in children whose lives are nourished, guided or simply touched or inspired in some way. But legacy can move laterally through friends or even single encounters, and eventually touch complete strangers. In the end we have no idea whose lives we touch, and how that might play out through a generation or two, and therefore what our accumulated legacy might turn out to be.  "The only thing you can do for other people is inspire them," Bob Dylan once said.  An impression, a phrase, an example, who knows what endures in someone's memory, or someone's life?

I have a laptop I don't use very much, except when I'm traveling or my desktop is out of action.  So when I opened this laptop during our Christmas trip, I came upon an email I'd forgotten about, which I received last Christmas. (That is, I'd forgotten where it was.)  It was from Bill Thompson, my friend who died in 2017.   So it was as if I was receiving another, a last, holiday message from him.

Last Christmas Bill was happy, and eager to share his good tidings.  Both his daughter and her husband had serious surgeries.  She emerged from hers cancer-free, and her husband who came within a hair's breadth of dying from heart failure, had three stents installed, and passed his stress test with flying colors.

"Granddaughter Vivia demonstrates daily that life and learning are a joy," Bill added.  "My Christmas is merry.  I want to share my joy with you."

He knew the weight of the 2016 election and all it portended was on me, and he wanted to be encouraging.  He wrote:

There is talk of resistance and I support it. My life has taught me that resistance starts with endurance.
The world need poets and articulate visionaries. We need you. Endure.

I want to share my joy but the joy transfer app is not in the app store. We need one.
So endure my friend.
Tidings of Comfort and Joy


I remember that I emailed him back, noting that I'd had good news as well: after some concern from her doctor about complications, my niece Megan's pregnancy was now predicted to end in a normal delivery in about a month.  Just weeks before, another niece (her sister Sarah) had given birth to a healthy baby boy.

The doctor turned out to be wrong in one respect--Megan's baby boy was born two weeks early but quite healthy.  A year later, both boys and both mothers are thriving.

So we endure.

Friday, December 29, 2017

R.I.P. 2017: Writers

J.P. Donleavy died this year, in September at the age of 91.  His first novel is his best remembered, The Ginger Man.  It was perhaps the last of the books that rose from a scandal to a classic.  I wonder if that will happen again.

Donleavy was born in the U.S. but moved back to his ancestral Ireland.  The adventures of a classmate at Trinity College in Dubin--no doubt mixed with his own--became the basis for The Ginger Man.  It was first published in 1955, though barely.  It didn't really get wide distribution until the 60s, which is when I first read it.  A charismatic classmate of mine (also an American of Irish extraction) at Knox College was its enthusiast.  He took to scribbling his favorite line as bathroom graffiti: "Bang on, wizard."

I loved its verbal invention and Joycean updates.  I read and owned his 9 novels throughout the 1970s plus his collection of plays, but the only volume that seems to have survived in my current collection is his still hilarious The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners.

Since then he not only wrote more novels and other books but saw his work transferred to the stage and a song or two written.  In the 1970s I was working with a fledgling film director who contacted him for movie rights to one of his novels.  Donleavy did his own agent work so David talked to him, but he wasn't interested in having his fiction filmed, and I believe he stuck to that position for the rest of his life.  If he'd given us the rights in this case though, I would have had first crack at the screenplay.

He also lived to reap awards, including the Irish version of a lifetime achievement award in 2015.  He accepted by reading an excerpt from his The Unexpurgated Code on the proper way to accept an award, which includes how to hint that perhaps it could have be awarded earlier.  It's both a funny and a surreal wish-fulfillment moment, as seen on this video, which also includes biographical information and a few excellent tributes.

Robert Pirsig also died in 2017 at the age of 81.  He developed his personal philosophy in two books, the first of which became very popular in the mid-1970s: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In that book (if I recall correctly) he wrote that there are basically two kinds of people: the person who notices a dripping faucet and thinks it should be fixed but let's it drip, and the person who immediately fixes it.  There was no question which one I was, but I enjoyed the book anyway.  The style grabbed me and I learned from his point of view, even if motorcycle maintenance would never interest me.  (I'm also reminded that the paperback came in different colors--the first time that gimmick was used, to my recollection.) (Or maybe the second--Future Shock may have been the first.)

In 1968, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevthushenko--already the most famous Russian poet in the West--was a guest at the home of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, then running for President.  The two quoted poetry at each other and attempted to toast in the Russian manner by drinking off a glass of champagne and throwing the glasses to break in the fireplace.  But the glasses didn't break--they were plastic.  Both took this as a bad omen.  Within months, Robert Kennedy was dead.  Yevthushenko lived another 49 years, until he died in 2017.

I've shared thoughts on several other writers who died in 2017: poet John Ashbery, playwright Sam Shepard, columnist Jimmy Breslin, poet Derek Walcott as well as New York Review of Books founding editor Robert Silvers.

Other writers who died in 2017 include Nancy Willard, Lillian Ross, Joanne Kyger, John Berger, playwrights Albert Innaurato and David Storey, Dore Ashton, William Gass, Richard Wilbur, Yu Guangzhong, Bette Howland, Nancy Friday, Eric Newman, Nat Hentoff, Anne Wiazemsky, Nora Johnson, Susan Vreeland, Kenneth Silverman, Thomas Fleming, Michael Bond, Sue Grafton, Hugh Thomas, Jean Fritz, Denis Johnson, Jean Stein, Robert James Walker, Paula Fox, Tzetan Todorov and Bharti Mukherjee.

May they all rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Talking Buddhism and Neuroscience

BEYOND THE SELF: Conversations Between Buddhism and Neuroscience
by Matthieu Ricard and Wolf Singer
MIT Press 

I remember seeing a public television documentary on the brain, in the early 1970s.  It was then orthodoxy that humans could not consciously affect internal workings of the body.  But the final shot was of a Buddhist monk in meditation, as the voiceover mentioned that meditators claimed to affect their own pulse rate and other functions, and this ought to be investigated.

Shortly after that, biofeedback and "the relaxation response" became New Age enthusiasms that by now have entered orthodox medicine.  The relationship of the brain and body continues to be explored, and for three decades now, the relationship of brain and mind has been explored through the agency of the Mind and Life Institute and the efforts of the Dalai Lama.  A series of gatherings of scientists and monks sparked laboratory research in which experienced meditators like Matthieu Ricard (a participant at several of the Dalai Lama's gatherings) wore sensors that recorded brain patterns, studied by neuroscientists (like Wolf Singer.)

These meetings resulted in a series of books (10 of which I've read and reviewed), with many of the more recent discussions viewable on the Internet.  This work profoundly affected some of the scientists involved, notably psychologist Paul Ekman, who wrote a book with the Dalai Lama.  But neuroscientists have also been fascinated by what they found, which clearly includes Wolf Singer.

The basis for dialogue between Tibetan Buddhists and brain scientists has been that both investigate the workings of the mind.  Tibetan Buddhist meditators have complied centuries of data and conclusions, based on what the meditators experienced.  This is the first person perspective, but with such elaborate data and systems that these scientists, wedded to the objectivity of only the third person perspective, could not ignore.  They also could not ignore how different the brains of very experienced meditators worked.

It's all come a long way and this book is one of the results.  It also turns out to be the  best book I've read on neuroscience, period, and the clearest explanation of Tibetan Buddhism and its approach to meditation.  More specifically, this is the clearest discussion I've read so far on the relationship of Buddhist meditation and the brain.  (I've tried to read James Austin but I failed.)

Ricard (in monks robes) at a Mind and Life dialogue in DC.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is speaking to the Dalai Lama.
Ricard, who is a trained scientist as well as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, has done a few of these dialogue books and he's very good at it.  He and Wolf engaged substantively and for the most part succinctly, which must be partly a product of the editing, as this book reflects dialogues over eight years.

 One impression I got is that at least the particular kind of Buddhism that comes from Tibet and neuroscience are very similar in their view of the brain.  Tibetan Buddhism as I observe from the Dalai Lama and others, and now Ricard, is highly logical.  It comports well with the mechanistic approach of neuroscience, though Wolf is pretty clear on where the mechanistic model runs up against limits.

There are six broad topics that expand to inevitable problems of epistemology and perhaps even (in "why is there something instead of nothing?") cosmology. That they agree on so much may surprise some readers.  The expected disagreement on on the ultimate nature of consciousness is minimized, and Ricard leaves it as an area for further research.

The logical rigor of Tibetan Buddhism may also be surprising.  I remember when as a Catholic boy I first read anything about Buddhist tenets (usually in popular literature), the romantic and mystical elements jumped out, like "enlightenment" and Zen koans.  The koan that seemed to capture everyone's imagination was: "what is the sound of one hand clapping?"  It promised such depths of paradox and maybe even, the Answer.

But Ricard uses it in a different context, to explain how a heated argument needs two participants.  "So, as the Tibetan saying goes, 'One cannot clap with one hand."  So it seems that for Tibetan Buddhists the answer to "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" is exactly what common sense tells you: silence.

Within the broad topics and technical discussions, I found at least one answer I've been seeking.  As Ricard says, the concentration of meditation is not rumination--in fact, ruminating is a distraction to be avoided.  I always wondered how a creative person reconciles meditational rigor with the creative fruits of rumination, daydreaming, imagination.

The answer is akin to the sound of one hand clapping--because the relationship is the contradiction it seems to be. Wolf surmises that unstable states (the wandering mind) could be a prerequisite for creativity.  Ricard agrees, citing a neuroscience study: "brain states favorable to creativity seem to be mutually exclusive with focused attention."

Which of course is not to say that writers and other creative people shouldn't meditate, for it certainly helps in many other ways which eventually contribute to the creative life.

For myself, even though Tibetan Buddhism presents the closest thing to a practical and congenial belief and value system, there are limits to its application. (Plus as much as the Dalai Lama laughs, I find Zen funnier, in that paradoxical way.) And there are many more limits to neuroscience, in my view.  It's interesting that to some this book is a revelation that Buddhism actually has something to say about the brain.  That's been clear to me for decades, but if its clarity finally gets through, then it has done its job, with elegant rigor.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Christmas Carol

Update: The Scrooges at YouTube have erased this video and all versions of the Sims' movie you don't have to pay for one way or another.  Bah, humbug!

The modern Christmas story has to be Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  First of all he wrote it just as the kind of Christmas traditions we observe today were becoming standard.  That includes Christmas carols themselves.  The first collection of now familiar carols was published less than a decade before he wrote this, and it would still be another 30 years or so before they were widely sung--by the Salvation Army on the streets first, and then in churches.

It's a classic story, even apart from Christmas.  Some writers and critics have tried to reduce the number of story plots to a basic minimum.  Author Robert Heinlein chose three plots to which all stories adhere, and the exemplar of one is A Christmas Carol--by being confronted with harsh or inspiring facts, the protagonist changes.

Dickens wrote it in 1843, the first of his annual Christmas stories, although he wrote about Christmas--and ghosts--throughout his career.  He depicted a Christmas celebration in his first serialized novel, The Pickwick Papers, which made him famous.

Ghost stories were an even older tradition of the season, probably a remnant of the winter storytelling of the ancestors that was part of Indigenous cultures.  Dickens combined them with a particular social conscience about the gap between rich and poor, and the huge difference in their lives in London.  It was a feature of the industrial age that we have inherited, adding new elements of it to what's being called income inequality in our time--as well as poverty and homelessness.

The shared responsibility to deal with this systematic suffering was becoming a Dickens passion in the 1840s.  He was working on his novel on the theme of selfishness, Martin Chuzzlewit, at the time he wrote A Christmas Carol.  But in Scrooge's memories of his childhood, Dickens worked with memories from his own childhood that he would write about more specifically in a later novel, the celebrated David Copperfield.

There have been many dramatizations of the story, which often turn the empathetic elements into sentimentality. Still, some movie versions do better than others, or have some overriding feature that sets them apart.

Probably the most famous adaptation is the 1951 Scrooge with the most famous performance of the title character by Alastair Sims.  It's the YouTube film at the top of this column, in a very good black and white print.

The most recent retelling I know of is the Disney animation of a few years ago, which I have not seen.  I'm partial to Patrick Stewart's 1999 movie, which I've got on tape but can't find in a decent version on the net for free.  The 1984 George C. Scott version is pretty good.  Scott starts out as a familiar modern Scrooge, with the awful charm of the ruthless businessman--it's not coincidence it was made in the 1980s.

David Warner brings some credibility to Bob Cratchit in this version, and though much of the storytelling is pedestrian, it's all worth Scott jumping on the bed when he realizes he has been given a second chance.  It's not really up to the Sims version but it has its moments.

This video below is the best I could find on YouTube.  You have to deal with periods of commentary (by two western Pennsylvania dudes with the accents I know so well) and there's some distortion in the picture but overall it's a pretty good print with excellent sound. Merry Christmas everyone.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Dark Age Now

The significant holidays in many existing traditions that occur around the time of the winter solstice suggest the enduring importance of this solar event within the living year.  At the center of customs or rituals in most traditions for these particular observances, including those that preceded today's major ones, is some form of light--light in the time of increased darkness.

Light also for warmth in the cold time.  One Indigenous tradition--and probably others, if not all--see winter as a time for the Earth's sleep but also of its pregnancy, the light in the body that will emerge as the new life of spring.
In those older traditions in parts of the world where winter is forbidding, when little grows to be harvested, and hunting and fishing slow or stop, the solstice began a season of people being together around the fire and listening to stories--stories of a people, of its history, of the origins of animals and how things got to be as they are.  Stories that provide the backbone of the living culture.

Though there are cultural values and aspirations embedded in, for instance, Christmas stories as well as religious texts read at this time, they exist more strongly in the institutions of our large scale complex culture, and in shared knowledge--including the standards for judging what is known.

A Dark Age in our culture is a time when such knowledge is forgotten and such institutions slip into chaos.  Late last year I suggested that signs pointed to the likelihood that we are entering such a time, and this past year has only added evidence of that.

I've called the incumbent president by a couple of names, still accurate.  Lately I've settled on "the anti-president," to reflect the complete extent to which he is relentlessly destroying the presidency, destroying the federal government and our sense of being one nation.  He does the opposite of what a president should do; he is the opposite of what a president should be, and even more, he is the opposite force, like anti-matter to matter: the anti-president.  This ongoing process of erasure is the preliminary to the self-reinforcing Dark Age.

The two most important elements are: replacing knowledge with ignorance, and flexible order with alarming chaos.

Knowledge it seems does not alone protect us.  What's being done is known, or at least knowable.  The anti-president's lies are doggedly counted and described every time he opens his mouth, but it doesn't seem to matter.  He keeps lying, about everything (including easily ascertained facts, and what's in his own proposals, etc)  and his White House backs him up.  Each time he lies, the truth dies, including the functional concept of truth.

 We can even identify other strategies that have been defined in popular fiction, like Orwell's Newspeak, which was at least as much the eradication of words as the addition of new mandatory ones.  Early on we've seen the erasure of climate change information from government websites, including the forbidding of the very words "climate change."  It has since disappeared from national security strategy.  Now there's a report of other banned words: the CDC has instructed staff to avoid seven words, including diversity, vulnerable, evidence-based and science-based.

Due in part to the anti-president, and in part to the impact of a certain social movement, right now all of our institutions are close to chaos, with decreasing resilience, and especially with fewer voices that can summon any kind of national understanding, consciousness or dialogue.  There is a leadership vacuum, including in opposing the anti-president and his supporting infrastructure.

But this year was just the preliminary, the softening up.  The possibility of real crisis increases in the coming year, and likely for years after that.  We may well face an authoritarian crisis by this time next year.  Everything is lining up for one.  Nobody knows how events will play out, but the elements are assembling, and we're vulnerable.

Yes, that's one of the forbidden words.  In fact, you can pretty much track where things are going on the right by what they want to forbid, and what say about the left.  They are very good at mirror accusations: being guilty of what they accuse others, or signaling their goals by accusations.  Right now the buzzword on the right is "coup."  It's often the justification for an authoritarian move--an anti-Republic to save the Republic.

Diversity is another forbidden word, for the institutions--including the rule of law and its principles-- that regulate and therefore keep alive a society with a diversity of identities and ideas, are under primary threat in any kind of authoritarian regime or culture.  Apparently rational, authoritarianism is most often driven by basic if not base emotions, from avarice to rage, that determine what may seem to be rational justifiable judgments.  It's pretty clear that such emotions are increasingly taking over.  The question is whether we survive these storms.

Certain kinds of absolute allegiances that are forms of identity can be set in opposition to others, which also sets up the chaos that can lead to an authoritarian "solution."  As we lose knowledge, allegiances, beliefs that we can hold in common, and as we lose faith in the fairness of institutions (particularly when they do become more unfair, more beholden to ideology or favoritism) we invite the chaos that is the pretext.  Then under pressure and in panic we face the dangers of devolving further into smaller group allegiances.

We haven't lost it all yet.  The national response from the top to this year's climate disasters has been grossly inadequate, but on the level of community--as in this southern California fire--there is still the unquestioned impulse to help.

Yet this all is unraveling at a time when life as we know it on our planet is in mortal peril from the climate crisis, and we're all but ignoring it, and certainly failing to do what we should be doing with the required urgency, attention and sense of purpose.  Some people talk of the next step in human evolution. Chances are slipping by that we will ever get to a next step. So far the prevalent evidence is that humanity is flunking evolution altogether.

At this time of year, people still gather to renew bonds, share stories and hope to provide a sense of light to the young.  As the new calendar year gets closer they may consider how they can represent the light and bring it to their times.

 These holidays in contemporary America are normally fraught with the resurrection of old conflicts, dashed if unreal expectations, push buttoned reminders of past hurt, and traditions of our culture that are conflicting to a point well beyond irony.  This year we have the added anxieties of deep turmoil in our country that is spiraling out of control, apparently headed to a Dark Age.  We huddle one more time around the light, hoping we're with the people who will still be with us in that different darkness.  

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Interview

Bill Moyers is retiring--again.  But at age 83, this time he may mean it.  He's been away from TV for a few years but he continued his unique brand of journalism at his website, Moyers & Company.  But now he's shutting that down, too.  We're losing another significant voice, with a breadth and depth and point of view that we need.

Among the many things he did well was the interview.  First of all, who he selected, and then, how he conducted the interview, the questions he asked, the kind of dialogue he elicited.  I've watched, heard and read his interviews since the original Bill Moyers Journal and through all his minseries, like World of Ideas.  Moyers has been a key player in my relationship to these times.

He posted what may well be his last interview, and it's major.  Here's how he introduces it:

"Our times at last have found their voice, and it belongs to a Pakistani American: Ayad Akhtar, born in New York, raised in Wisconsin, an alum of Brown and Columbia, actor, novelist, screenwriter and playwright, with an ever-soliciting eye for the wickedness and wonders of the world."

The occasion is the play now ending its run in New York, by this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.  It's called Junk, and the subject is high finance in the 1980s.

Moyers asked him why he set his play in the 80s--why not another era of financial mania, like the 1920s or the 19th century Guilded Age?

Akhtar: Oh, there could be a fascinating play about the robber-baron era and maybe even the relationship between JP Morgan and Teddy Roosevelt. There was a back and forth then between politics and capital. But in a way, those stories are not as relevant ultimately to us today as what happened in the 1980s. I think the difference in the ’80s was that the philosophical soil of the earlier American psyche was ready to embrace unfettered individualism as the rubric of behavior and decision-making. The collective mindset experienced a fracture in the ‘80s that we are still dealing with."

Okay, I quote this partly because I have known this since the 80s, and so have others of my generation, but it's exciting to hear it from a younger voice.

The 80s created the church of finance, worshipping the god of the economy, for the economy really is:

"... an abstraction that we placate and that we observe with holy attention on a regular basis whose well-being tells us more about our well-being than our own well-being tells us. When the economy is healthy, we are a hopeful people. When the economy falters, presages of doom are never far off. It’s mythic thinking. Through statistics and analysis we have substituted an abstraction that somehow is speaking eloquently about every aspect of our national and political and personal lives."

Akhtar and Moyers talk about this out loud--this assumption that is so basic that it's just accepted as "reality," as if nothing else ever existed.  To say this stuff is like fish defining water.  It's the reality we swim in, without questioning it anymore.

Moyers quotes lines from the play and Akhtar repeats some of them in explaining the premise:

"Those oppositions go to the heart of a money-obsessed culture: Upgrade your place in line or your prison for a fee. Rent out your womb to carry someone else’s child. Buy a stranger’s life insurance policy and wait for them to die. What she’s suggesting is that the entire compass of human existence is now defined by the imperative to monetize every possible interaction. This is what the system has created; it’s created this aberration where everyone is looking to benefit in a financial way off of every transaction they are having with everyone else. This is the ideal. And then people wonder why don’t we have a society anymore. Why is there no sense of mutual well-being? Because we are pitted against each other like merchants."

Akhtar defines in stark terms what this means for people in the prime of their working lives:

If you are a person of endowment confronted with fears about how to make your way in the world, Bill, there are really not enough opportunities for you to exhibit your excellence and secure your future. So you make the choice that puts you into the system. The system is the thing redistributing wealth. When you are in the system, the system works one way. It does not work two ways; it does not work five ways. It works one way. And working that way, with maybe a flavor of compassion if you want, or a flavor of ruthlessness if you want, depending upon your personality — that’s what’s going to ensure your success."

He talks about the scary implications for the future, as the ways to earn incomes shrink through technology, and capitalism eats the world.  There's more and you can read it, at least for awhile (I'm not sure what all will be eventually archived, but that's the ultimate fate of this site.)  But if for nothing else, the interview is classic for this one insight about why people who don't get wealthy support this culture, what benefit do they expect to get?

"What could be that benefit? And again the answer hit me: The lowest price. Offering people the lowest price has become the new promise, the new covenant, socially. Once that was usually offered to a member of society as a citizen: You have the right to representation, to certain social goods. No longer. What you have the right to now is the lowest price. So you see the rise of Amazon as the corporate centerpiece of contemporary life, because it’s servicing the only system that any longer makes sense: a system of customers. We have all been transformed, fundamentally, from citizens into customers."

Could this be the defining statement of this era?  Once again, Moyers is on to something.  We're really going to miss him, even when we don't realize it.  In fact, especially then.